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Schumacher - The Rise

The dramatic story of the rise of Formula One's most successful champion, from being the new boy to becoming the man to beat in just a few short years. Part 2/4.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013

February 20th, 2013 (F1plus /Chris Cameron-Dow).- After his debut for Jordan at Spa in 1991, where the young German qualified a stunning 7th but retired with clutch failure on the opening lap, Schumacher was swiftly snapped up by Benetton to partner triple world champion Nelson Piquet. Although it was undoubtedly a positive step for Schumacher – Benetton were a well-established and competitive team where Jordan were newcomers to Formula One – the move introduced a theme to Schumacher's career that would never quite disappear: controversy.

Eddie Jordan felt that he had contractual rights to Schumacher's services for the remainder of the 1991 season, but due to a legal technicality in the contract Schumacher was able to leave the Jordan team and join Benetton at the urging of his manager Willi Weber and with the support of F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone. Jordan attempted unsuccessfully to oppose the move in court.

For Schumacher, the legal issues were clearly not much of a distraction. At his first race for Benetton at Monza in Italy, Schumacher outqualified team-mate Piquet and finished fifth – again ahead of Piquet – to take his first points in Formula One.

Sixth places followed in Portugal and Spain, before an engine failure in Japan and a crash in Australia ended his season with retirements. Schumacher had scored four points and finished 14th in the 1991 championship. The numbers seem modest compared to what he would achieve in the rest of his career, but he had done enough to show the Formula One community that he was something special.

1992 saw Schumacher deliver results that confirmed his talent. His maiden Grand Prix victory came at Spa, scene of his debut a year before, and he stood on the podium eight times on the way to third in the championship, behind the Williams pair of Nigel Mansell and Ricardo Patrese and, significantly, ahead of Ayrton Senna, the man who was considered Formula One's benchmark at the time.

In a sport where drivers are heavily reliant on having competitive cars, the first task of a Formula One driver is to beat his team-mate. In 1992, Schumacher finished with 53 points, 15 ahead of his much more experienced team-mate, Martin Brundle. In fact, Schumacher was beaten by Brundle only once that season, at Monza where Brundle scored a career-best second place and Schumacher finished third.

Schumacher in route to his first Formula 1 victory at Spa (Belgium) in 1992. (LAt Photo)

Only one victory was possible in 1993 at Portugal (LAT Photo)

It seemed that Schumacher would inevitably make a serious challenge for the championship at some point. The question was: when? It was not to be in 1993, as Williams continued to rule the roost, this time with Alain Prost taking the title. Schumacher finished fourth, behind Prost, Senna and Prost's team-mate, Damon Hill. For the second year in a row, Schumacher had won a solitary race, but in 1993 he stood on the podium in each of the nine races he managed to finish.

1994 was expected to be Senna's year. He had finally secured a seat with the all-conquering Williams-Renault team, and the combination of Senna and Williams was such a formidable prospect that it was predicted he could win all 16 races in the season on his way to the title. It was inconceivable that the championship would not go to the Brazilian legend.

But the start of the season was all about Schumacher. Senna took pole for the first race in Brazil, but Schumacher managed to pass due to quick work in the pits by the Benetton team and Senna spun off while pushing to catch up. At the second race in Aida (called the Pacific Grand Prix although it was run in Japan), Senna again started on pole, but was passed by Schumacher at the start and shunted out by Mika Hakkinen in the first corner. Schumacher went on to win from Gerhard Berger by over a minute.

The San Marino Grand Prix, third race of 1994, will forever occupy a dark place in the history of motor racing. In the first qualifying session on Friday, Rubens Barrichello was taken to the medical centre unconscious after a spectacular accident in which he launched over a kerb and hit the top of a tyre barrier before rolling several times and coming to rest upside down. The next day, Roland Ratzenberger was killed when his car left the track at over 300 km/h hit a concrete wall during second qualifying. It was the first fatality at a Grand Prix weekend in 12 years and left all involved in the event shaken.

The show, as always in Formula One, went on. Senna had, for the third consecutive race, qualified on pole ahead of Schumacher. The Brazilian led off the line, with Schumacher close behind, but a dramatic crash at the start, involving Schumacher's team-mate JJ Lehto and Lotus driver Pedro Lamy led to the safety car being deployed.

Once the debris from the crash had been removed, the race resumed with a rolling start and Senna once again led from Schumacher. But on the second lap after the restart, Senna's car left the track at the flat-out Tamburello corner and struck the wall at 218 km/h. Senna suffered fatal head injuries.

Schumacher won the race after it was restarted, but it was a reserved and restrained Schumacher who stood on the top step of the podium. Following Senna's death, Schumacher would find himself wondering if he should remain in Formula One. How fortunate for the sport that he chose to carry on.

Pole position (his first), fastest lap and victory went to Schumacher at the next race in Monaco, which had its own drama as Schumacher's former sports car team-mate Karl Wendlinger crashed heavily at the chicane and was taken to hospital in a coma. Wendlinger would recover and return to Formula One in 1995.

The fifth race of the season in Spain is regarded as one of Schumacher's greatest performances. He led from pole position, but during the course of the race his car became stuck in fifth gear. Rather than retiring, which many drivers would have done, Schumacher changed his driving style to accommodate his damaged gearbox and managed to finish the race, including making a pitstop and pulling away from a standstill in fifth gear. Limping to the finish at all would have been an achievement, but Schumacher maintained good enough pace to finish second, just 24 seconds behind Damon Hill. It was an astonishing display of skill and drew admiration from his competitors, including Williams technical director Patrick Head who said, regarding the car being stuck in fifth gear, “If that is true, we might as well all pack in.”

Wins in Canada and France followed, which put Schumacher on 66 points to Hill's 29, with six wins from the first seven races. It seemed that the title was Schumacher's for the taking. But Schumacher was about to have a brush with the stewards that would dramatically impact the rest of his season.

At the British Grand Prix, Schumacher was black-flagged (disqualified) during the race for failing to serve a penalty he had received for breaking protocol on the warm-up lap and passing Damon Hill – a tactic that was intended to rattle Hill, but ultimately backfired in some style.

Although Schumacher finished the British Grand Prix second after eventually serving his penalty and managing, through the negotiating skills of his team, to avoid obeying the black flag, he and the Benetton team were summoned before the FIA for a hearing. For his part in the fiasco at Silverstone, Schumacher was stripped of the 6 points he had received and given a two-race ban.

The ban meant he would miss his home Grand Prix at Hockenheim, unless he appealed the sanction, which he duly did. But home glory was not to be his, as his car came to a halt with engine failure. For Jos Verstappen in the other Benetton, however, the day was far worse – while he was in the pits, fuel sprayed all over his car and ignited, putting him at the centre of an inferno from which he was fortunate to escape with only minor burns.

Schumacher was back on top with an emphatic victory in Hungary, and when he crossed the line first at the next race at Spa, it looked like the momentum was swinging back in his favour. But a few hours after the race, it was announced that Schumacher had been disqualified, due to the skid block under his car, which had been introduced to stop the teams from running their cars too low, having worn down more than was permitted during the race.

Two days later, Schumacher's appeal of his two-race ban was rejected by the FIA, which meant he would sit out the Italian and Portuguese Grands Prix. Damon Hill won both races, which reduced Schumacher's championship lead to a single point with three races to go.

Schumacher won comfortably at the European Grand Prix in Jerez, but was beaten in Japan as Hill delivered one of the finest drives of his career in torrential rain. The two title contenders would go to the final round in Adelaide with just a point separating them. The small championship lead belonged to Schumacher.

The 1994 Australian Grand Prix was perhaps a fitting end to an awful season. After deaths, injuries, accusations of cheating, fines, bans and pit-lane fires, everyone in Formula One was longing for the winter break. But before that could begin, there was the small matter of a championship to be won and lost. It was decided in a low-speed, awkward, unnecessary accident.

At the start of the race, Schumacher passed pole-sitter Nigel Mansell, who was making a guest appearance for Williams. Hill had also passed Mansell at the start, and stayed relatively close to Schumacher throughout the early part of the race but then began to catch him.

On lap 36, Schumacher made an error, running wide at the East Terrace corner and hitting the wall with the right-hand side of his car, but was able to rejoin the track. Hill rounded the same corner, saw Schumacher rejoining the track at low speed, and attempted to pass into the next corner. Schumacher turned in, Hill did not back off, and the pair collided. The right side of Schumacher's car was lifted into the air, and his car hit a tyre-barrier when it landed, eliminating Schumacher from the race. Hill limped round to the pits, but retired with a bent wishbone in his left-front suspension.

Schumacher was champion by a single point, but it was hardly the victory he would have wanted. His reputation had taken a serious knock after the incident with Hill, which he was widely accused of having caused on purpose. It also did not help his image that he had spent so much of the season in the bad books of the stewards and that his team had been accused on more than one occasion of cheating. But it was also clear that Schumacher was the class of the field, and had put in the performances required of a champion.

Schumacher dedicated his 1994 championship victory to Ayrton Senna, who he still felt would have beaten him to the title if not for the tragic events of Imola.

After the controversy of 1994, Schumacher and Benetton set the record straight in 1995 in commanding fashion. Nine race victories equalled Mansell's 1992 record, and a first home win at Hockenheim made the season all the more special for the young German, who cruised to the championship with two races to spare.

Schumacher celebrates victory in Australian soil (LAT Photo)

The year was not entirely without drama, and in fact started somewhat unsatisfactorily for Schumacher when he, along with David Coulthard, was disqualified from the opening round in Brazil due to irregularities in the Benetton and Williams fuel samples that were provided to the FIA in terms of the regulations. The two drivers were subsequently reinstated after a hearing, although their teams received no points in the Constructors' Championship for the Brazilian race.

After the win in Brazil, Schumacher's championship campaign took a bit of a dip. He finished third in Argentina and then spun out of the race at Imola, which meant he was second in the points table after three races, six points behind Hill. But Schumacher soon recovered with victory in Spain and Monaco. In Canada, Schumacher had a gearbox problem that limited him to fifth place, but he was back on top in France, winning by half a minute from Hill.

Those who thought the tangles between Schumacher and Hill were a thing of the past were proven wrong at Silverstone, where Hill attempted a bold overtaking manoeuvre and took both drivers out of the race. Schumacher's team-mate, Johnny Herbert, was happy to pick up the pieces and took victory in front of his home crowd.

The next round in Germany could hardly have gone better for Schumacher. Hill had pole, but crashed out at the start of the second lap, leaving Schumacher to take victory in front of an ecstatic German crowd and stretch his championship lead to 21 points at the mid-point of the season.

There was some relief for Hill in Hungary, where he won the race and Schumacher picked up no points on a day that included refuelling problems in the pits and electrical problems on the track. But Schumacher's dominance could not be halted for long, and he took victory in Belgium, although it was not without controversy. He was accused of unfairly blocking Hill when the pair battled during the race. The stewards examined the incident and handed Schumacher a suspended one-race ban, but did not change the race result.

The Italian Grand Prix at Monza was the scene of yet another clash between Hill and Schumacher. This time there was no doubt who was to blame. Hill ran into the back of Schumacher's Benetton and took both cars out of the race. The two drivers were once again summoned to appear before the stewards, and this time it was Hill who received a suspended one-race ban. As at Silverstone, Johnny Herbert came through to take victory.

The Portuguese Grand Prix saw Schumacher surprise Hill with an unlikely pass to take second place behind David Coulthard, and at the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, Schumacher all but sealed his second title with an aggressive display of skill, battling with Hill and the Ferrari of Jean Alesi and emerging on top. Afterwards, Hill praised his rival, saying, “Hats off to the guy, he's a bloody good racing driver.”

Victory at the Pacific Grand Prix in Aida made Schumacher world champion for the second time. Although there were still two races left in the season, there were not enough points available for Hill to overhaul Schumacher's tally. But Schumacher wasn't tired of winning in 1995 just yet, and sealed the Constructors' title for Benetton with victory ahead of Mika Hakkinen in Japan. It was to be the team's only Constructs' Championship, and Schumacher remains the only driver to have won the Drivers' Championship in a Benetton.

The final race of the season in Adelaide ended in another accident for Schumacher, this time while battling with Jean Alesi, as Hill took a consolation victory. It was to be Schumacher's last race for Benetton, as he had already signed with Ferrari for 1996.

With his triumph in 1995, Schumacher became (at the time) the youngest ever double World Champion, and it was thoroughly deserved. He was simply better than everyone else, and everyone knew it. He had achieved in just four full seasons of Formula One what most drivers could not hope to approach in a long career. But even at that immense high point of his early career, he could not have imagined the success that lay ahead.

And at that point, he bade farewell to Benetton, the team with which he had achieved so much, and moved on to what would become his greatest challenge and greatest triumph: the re-building and resurgence of Ferrari.

Michael Schumacher claimed his first of seven championship in 1994 as a Benetton-Renault driver(LAT Photo)

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